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NEWS | Dec. 1, 2014

Program Turns Old Fighters Into Unmanned Targets


Not a lot of people crash three planes in a day and call it a job well done.

Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew Garrison does.

Garrison heads up the only squadron in the Air Force that takes retired planes from the bone yard — essentially a junkyard for planes — and resurrects them as aerial targets used for weapons testing and training. It's a unique mission.

"They come to us and we give them new life," Garrison said recently on a tour of one of his aircraft hangars at Tyndall Air Force Base. "Then we go shoot them down and leave it on the bottom of the ocean."

Aerial targets and unmanned aircraft, often called drones by civilians, have a long history in Northwest Florida. In the late 1940s, the Air Force flew its first "nullo" missions at Eglin Air Force Base, taking rusty, but sturdy, World War II bombers and turning them into drones for target practice and weapons testing.

Over 60 years later, the program has hit its latest milestone — sending unmanned F-16 fighter jets soaring into the air. Last month, Garrison's squadron, which is overseen by the program office at Eglin, completed the first test mission of what they call the QF-16, using a weapon to blow the aircraft to pieces over the Gulf of Mexico.

"I'm an F-16 guy, so it stinks to see one go down," Garrison said. "But, it was also everything we've been working towards over the last few years."

The process of turning a plane into an unmanned aerial target starts in the desert.

That's where the military stores aircraft that are ready to be retired. From there, select F-4s and now F-16s are plucked from junk and flown to a Boeing facility in Jacksonville.

Boeing modifies the jets for unmanned flight, putting in a new system and often hollowing out a lot of the old equipment. Operating systems are much smaller today and they often end up with extra room, Garrison said.

At that point, the planes are capable of flying as drones, but can still be operated by pilots who fly them back to Tyndall for careful testing and use for support in other drone missions.

Eventually, the airmen "hit the switch," as they say, and turn the planes into fully unmanned machines by removing ejection seats and putting in lighter, cheaper engines.

The planes will never again have a pilot in the cockpit. Their fate is sealed.

"They don't come back to us after that," Garrison said.

Walking through Garrison's hangar is a lot like touring an air history museum, though much less polished. The squadron has a fleet of resurrected F-4s, some from Vietnam. Their F-16s have been to Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. The planes are bumped and bruised.

"See how old these are?" Garrison said. "We're not flying the newest of anything."

The mission is busy. They run one to two tests or trainings a week on average, sometimes up to six. It's also varied.

On a recent late morning, Garrison had already flown an F-16 to Jacksonville, been brought back to Tyndall by the squadron's E-9 transport plane and was now briefing pilots on the afternoon's test, which would use a smaller-scale drone, about 6 feet in length, to test a missile being flown in from Eglin.

Several of the squadron's boats already had been dispatched to the Gulf to set up the perimeter for the test area.

"I love the job," Garrison said. "It's never the same day twice."

Drone pilots sit in a building across base from the hangar. During missions, they maneuver the empty planes through the sky over the Gulf, a small camera transmitting a limited view from the cockpit.

Garrison said the biggest challenge for flying the unmanned QF-16 is visibility.

"You lose your peripheral vision," he said. "It's hard to learn to place yourself in the sky without all that added visual information."

For the QF-16, the drone pilot controls are almost identical to what the pilot would find in the actual cockpit, though. Since the planes are created with newer electronic operating systems, they are easier to convert to unmanned capability and make for an easier transition for pilots.

By next June, the squadron at Tyndall will have replaced all its QF-4 drones with QF-16s. By the end of 2016, their detachment at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico will have made the same transition.

The QF-16s are faster, sleeker and more capable than the older planes, Garrison said, comparing the new model to a Porsche sports car and the QF-4s to vintage muscle cars.

They are more capable of acting like what the U.S. might actually face on the battlefield.

"These drones will actively do maneuvers that represent, for example, what a Russian fighter aircraft or any adversary aircraft might do," said Michele Hafers, director of the test and training division at Eglin, which oversees the project.

"We don't know exactly how our weapons are going to work until we actually put it up against a bad guy, so we make these planes the bad guy," she said. "They make really good bad guys."


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